Turns out we've seen that hilarious viral upside-down painting before

Characters from Arthur look at a Mondrian artwork that was hung upside down
(Image credit: PBS)

Children's TV can sometimes be wonderfully on point. The discovery that galleries have been displaying a Mondrian masterpiece upside down for decades was amusing in itself. But it's become even funnier now that people are noticing that a children's cartoon predicted the gaffe more than twenty years ago.

It turns out that Piet Mondrian's 1941 New York City I has probably always been hanging the wrong way up. Worse still, it seems it's now too late to fix the mistake because curators fear that moving the work would damage it. But perhaps all this could have been fixed years ago if the experts had watched an episode of Arthur (if you're a budding artist yourself, see our pick of the best art supplies).

Mondrian's unfinished and unsigned New York City I shows a red, blue and yellow lattice-like artwork made using adhesive tape. It first went on display at New York's MoMA in 1945 and went on to appear in several galleries. Since 1980, it has belonged to Kunstsammlung NRW, the art collection of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf. 

But while researching the museum's current retrospective on the artist, curator Susanne Meyer-Büser noticed something that now appears rather obvious. She realised that the thicker lines in the grid should probably be at the top "like a dark sky," she told The Guardian – just as they are in Mondrian's visually very similar piece, New York City, which is at Paris's Centre Pompidou. 

A photograph of Mondrian's studio published in the American lifestyle magazine Town and Country in June 1944 appears to back up her theory. It shows the picture on an easel the other way up – although it has been pointed out that artists often rotate canvases while they work.

Mondrian, a founder of the De Stijl art group, is regarded as one of the 20th century's great pioneers of abstract minimalism and expressionism. Kunstsammlung NRW describes New York City I as "a lively, dynamic rhythm of coloured, red, blue and yellow stripes [which] took the place of a radically reduced pictorial language."

That kind of description is probably part of the reason many detractors of modern art are taking delight in the discovery that the piece has been upside down all along. If a gallery can't make enough sense out of modern art to know which way it's supposed to go, how can the rest of us? But most amusingly, people have pointed out that a children's television series predicted the mistake years ago.

"Wasn't this an episode of Arthur?" is a question being asked by many on Twitter. And indeed it was. In 'Binky Barnes, Art Expert' – the first half of a 1997 episode of Kathy Waugh's animated series for PBS – nobody believes Blinky when he insists that a Mondrian-like painting is hung sideways. He finally proves his case, receiving acclaim both at school and from the media.

Arthur fans are delighted to discover that Blinky was right all along, but they can't believe the art world didn't pay attention. "There was literally an Arthur episode about this. Why didn't everyone check their paintings after that?" one person asked.

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The museum isn't going to correct the mistake, however. It fears the work of art will disintegrate if they try to move it. Someone commenting on the museum's Instagram thinks a solution that might appear to Mondrian himself would be to turn the label upside down instead. 

But maybe it doesn't matter which way up the artwork is hung. @culturaltutor wrote on Twitter: "The truth may be that its incorrect hanging is a testament to the purpose of abstract art in the first place. To go beyond any ideas of 'context' and 'correctness' at all, into a realm of fundamentality where perspective is irrelevant." We still think Blinky Barnes was right though.

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Joseph Foley

Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.